The Heavenly Echoes Headline Christmas Benefit Concert
Story by Don Wilcock
Photograph by Wanda Callagy
Greater Nippertown’s premier gospel group the Heavenly Echoes will headline the Fruit of the Spirit Christmas benefit concert at TJ’s Flightline Pub in Glenville at 8pm on Saturday (December 16th).
I have to admit I was a bit concerned when I first booked the Heavenly Echoes for this annual event three years ago. Would this be the ultimate clash of cultures?
I met the Heavenly Echoes when I hosted a gospel benefit for Troy’s Sanctuary for Independent Media in 2009. The group was on a bill with the Duryee AME Zion Church Male Chorus, the Oak Grove Missionary Baptist Church Male Chorus and spiritual singer Anne Terrell. The Heavenly Echoes were the shining stars in a galaxy of Sunday morning musical inspirations that night.
Together since 1960, they’ve performed at Saratoga First Night every New Year’s Eve for the last decade, and their lead vocalist Earl Thorpe has a pedigree that goes back six decades to a time when he played an Easter show at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem with his doo-wop group the Fidelities on the same bill with Fats Domino, The Coasters, The Flamingos and The Dells.
But how would they go over on a Saturday night in suburban Glenville playing to a relatively younger crowd of predominantly white folks out for a night on the town? Our society of late has leaned over backwards to take Christ out of Christmas, and these guys make no bones about their divine inspiration. Could they reach a Saturday reveler with a second drink in his hand?
The cause was appropriate. Now in its 12th year, Fruit of the Spirit raises money to buy gifts for needy children from more than 90 families in Schenectady County. Founded by my stepdaughter Tanneal Green, Fruit of the Spirit goes beyond the usual Christmas toy drive in that it provides gifts that recipient children specifically have asked for rather than the generic doll or truck “for every boy and girl” that other Christmas charities provide. Fruit of the Spirit works in conjunction with Schenectady Municipal Housing and Schenectady Community College.
On that cold December night three years ago, the Heavenly Echoes came out of the chute swingin’ and singin.’ Taking The Temptations’ 1965 No. 1 hit “My Girl,” they changed the lyric to “My God” and nailed the classic to the wall. All conversation in the bar came to a halt. The crowd was riveted as these seasoned veterans carried the genre-bending classic into their spiritual realm: “I´ve got sunshine/On a cloudy day/When it´s cold outside/I´ve got the month of May/Well, I guess you´d say/What can make me feel this way/ My God, my God, my God/Talkin´ ´bout my God, my God…”
I love good gospel music. Great gospel music transcends its secular first cousin the blues. I saw a West Side Chicago gospel fest many years ago that became the yardstick against which I measure all subsequent gospel performances I’ve attended. The Heavenly Echoes match any of the performers I saw that Sunday in the Windy City, including the late Otis Clay. And they’re back this year for a benefit performance by popular demand. The singers on Saturday will be Hayes Coleman, Earl Thorpe and Decky Lawson. Accompanying them will be guitarists Earl Kornegay and Anthony Fason, drummer Kenny Ketter and bassist Joe Abbey.
If the Heavenly Echoes’ credentials and word of mouth buzz from the last three years of Fruit of the Spirit benefits don’t convince you that this is a must-be-there feel good event, just check out the credentials of bass singer Earl Thorpe alone. He was a founder of The Fidelities, an Albany-based doo-wop group that hit the charts in 1958 with “The Things I Love,” a song that landed them their second Apollo appearance on the same bill with Etta James, Little Willie John, the Danleers, the Kalin Twins, Sonny Til and the Upsetters.
The Fidelities recorded several more singles including “(Oh What a Girl) This Girl of Mine,” “Memories of You” and “Walk with the Wind” for Baton Records, a label that had hits with Ann Cole, who claimed to have written “I’ve Got My Mojo Working” before Muddy Waters recorded it.
In the ’70s and ’80s. Thorpe made Local 518 appearances at Rudy’s and Otto’s with a show band called Miss Maggie’s Children. They dressed like Sly & the Family Stone and covered everyone from Sam & Dave to the Everly Brothers.
Asked whose idea it was to do “My Girl” as “My God,” Thorpe says without hesitation, “Me! I got three or four of them like that. ‘Lean on Me’ to ‘Lean on God.’ I’m gonna take you to a place. I’m gonna take you down memory lane, (but) I don’t want you to think you’re in the Soul Shack or you’re back at Kittles” (two Albany soul music venues of the ’60s).
Also on the bill Saturday will be JV & the Cutters, a very electric and original blues-inflected rock band that effortlessly glides from Rolling Stones hits to originals by singer-songwriter-guitarist Joe Abbey, who does double duty as both the bass player in the Heavenly Echoes and bandleader of JV & the Cutters. The band also features bassist Peter Marshall and drummer Decky Lawson.